This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

"I only know I have this power. I have always had it. I can feel it burning within me, driving me on. It is here inside me. It is in my hands. And I warn you, I warn you all, that I, Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, intend to use it. The power is mine and I will use it as I please."
-Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.

The title character of this movie is one of the most fascinating in history. He began as a monk who was later expelled from his monastery because of his excessive drinking and womanizing as well as his volatile temper (one could call Rasputin an inspiration for Sonny Corleone). By 1915, with Russia deep in World War I and on the brink of revolution, he managed to become the close confidante of Tsarina Alexandra. The reason she allowed him into the inner circle of the Romanov family was because of how Rasputin managed to heal her son, Alexis, who was hemophiliac. His healing ability remained a mystery to doctors. The influence Rasputin had over her, especially with Tsar Nicholas personally at the battlefront, led to others close to the royal family to plot his demise.

This attempt was successful in December 1916. However, even details of Rasputin's assassination are mysterious. Felix Usupov, who married the Tsar's niece, Irina, first attempted to poison Rasputin with cyanide-laced pastries. When those had no effect, Usupov resorted to shooting Rasputin. Usupov and his fellow conspirators then deposed of the body in the nearby Malaya Nevka River. However, an autopsy later revealed that the cause of Rasputin's death of drowning.

Prior to his death, Rasputin wrote to Alexandra that, should anyone take his own life, then the Romanov family would soon follow. As it turns out, Nicholas was overthrown shortly afterward and, along with Alexandra and their children, were imprisoned in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed on July 17, 1918.

Not surprisingly, there have been numerous movies about Rasputin. Of the ones I've seen, my favorite is probably Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny(1996), which deservedly won Emmys for Alan Rickman's performance in the title role and Greta Scacchi's performance as Alexandra.

This film, which Hammer made back to back with Dracula-Prince of Darkness using some of the same sets and cast members, takes some liberties with the historical account of Rasputin, but is still entertaining.

Lee's Rasputin is first seen coming at an inn for something to drink. The innkeeper (Derek Francis) agrees to throw a party after Rasputin heals his ill wife. During the party, his romp in the hay with a girl is interrupted by a man who resents his luck with the ladies. The ensuing fight leads to Rasputin being disciplined by an Orthodox bishop. After the innkeeper defends him, Rasputin, despite accusations from the bishop that his power is from the devil, announces that his power is his and he will continue to use it.

After arriving in St. Petersburg, Rasputin engages in a drinking contest with Dr. Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco) in another inn. That same night, Rasputin encounters Sonia (Barbara Shelley), Vanessa (Suzan Farmer) and her brother Ivan (Francis Matthews), who are all associates of the royal family. Rasputin is angered when Sonia laughs after burping, interrupting his dancing.

The next morning, Rasputin takes a passed out Zargo to his home, where he then hypnotically calls Sonia. When she arrives, Rasputin slaps her but his anger with her lessens when she reveals her link to the Tsarina. After sending Zargo off, the two make love. Afterward, Rasputin hypnotizes her into injuring Alexandra's son Alexei, so Rasputin can be sent for to heal him. Before Zargo can object, Rasputin also instructs Sonia to make him the family's doctor.

Not surprisingly, Rasputin's subsequent influence with the Tsarina leads to even more womanizing. He renounces an anguished Sonia and hypnotizes her into committing suicide.

This leads Zargo plotting Rasputin's demise with Ivan and Sonia's brother Peter (Dinsdale Landen). Upon hearing of his sister's death, Peter confronts Rasputin, who kills him by throwing acid in his face.

Zargo and Ivan lure Rasputin to a meeting, offering poisoned wine and candies. Although the poison ravages his body, Rasputin still has enough strength to fight Ivan before Zargo takes a knife the monk meant for Ivan. This sacrifice allows Ivan to toss Rasputin out a window to his death.

I must confess, this film skips over some historical aspects that would have been nice to see. For instance, I would have like the climatic struggle between Rasputin, Ivan and Zargo to be even longer. For once, we would actually have a real-life monster getting up over and over again. As silly as this sounds, I also think those Esther Price candies Zargo poisons aren't as appealing as the Krispy Kreme doughnuts Usupov used.

But as nice as the supporting cast is, Lee is the one who makes the movie work. He was known for being as historically accurate as possible when it came to playing real-life figures. Sir Christopher was also known for being quite tall, while Rasputin, like Hitler and Charles Manson, was physically small. Despite the height difference, Lee's work was praised by none other than Maria, Rasputin's daughter, whom he met shortly after the film's release. She noted that Lee captured her father's expression, which is simply another testament to how great Sir Christopher was.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

"Whatever happens, death is not the end!"
-Lucien Celine.

The recent passing of legendary director Wes Craven prompted me to take another look at some of his films. I'd say that The Serpent and the Rainbow is his most underrated work. It is based on the non-fiction work of Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist from Harvard whose studies while in Haiti basically unlocked the secrets of zombies.

In the film, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) travels to the same country to investigate the death of a man named Christophe (Conrad Roberts), who presumably died and was buried seven years earlier.

Alan also experiences horrifying visions while after obtaining herbs from a shaman. These images include Haitian authority Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae). Alan's American citizenship initially protects him from Peytraud until Alan's refusal to leave Haiti prompts him to take stronger measures.

Despite the help of witch doctor Mozart (Brent Jennings) and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), Alan and his associate Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) soon find themselves at Peytraud's mercy. Mozart and Celine are both killed and Alan falls victim to the zombie powder and is buried alive. But Christophe rescues Alan, who then saves Marielle. Using Celine's teachings, they are able to vanquish Peytraud.

This film didn't make the same impact as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Scream (1996), which is a shame as it has many eerie moments (one of my favorites is Alan's vision of a zombie hand in the soup he's about to eat.

No doubt this film has drastic differences from Davis's book, but, for those who like zombies, this one is sure to please.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Agony Booth review: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

I've beaten this point to death numerous times already, but I'm finally letting it all out in my latest review for the Agony Booth.
Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula generated buzz when it originally premiered and won Oscars for its technical achievements, but as the years have gone by and the buzz has died down, it’s now regarded as simply inferior to the 1930s original.

In the case of Coppola’s film, that indifference is more than justified. The reason for this is because, for all the claims by both Coppola and screenwriter James Hart that this would be the definitive screen adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 novel, the end result is no more faithful to that great book than many of the other movie versions. Hence, this film has an even more misleading title than Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. (I think it says it all that this supposedly faithful adaptation deviated so far from the original book that it merited its own novelization.) But the crimes Coppola’s film commits don’t stop there.

The movie begins in 1462 at the height of the Crusades. Vlad Tepes (Gary Oldman) AKA Vlad the Impaler, the real life figure who Count Dracula was partially based on, returns to his castle after fighting (and impaling) the Turks only to discover that his wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), has killed herself because she was told that he died in battle.

A priest (Anthony Hopkins) tells Vlad that because his wife has taken her own life, her soul is now damned (almost like watching this movie). Vlad then renounces God, and somehow, this causes the cross in the chapel to bleed, and him to become a vampire called Dracula as he shouts out in a hammy manner.

Jump forward to 1897, and we see British solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves; yes, Keanu Reeves) on a train bound for Transylvania to meet Dracula to arrange real estate that the Count has recently purchased in London. We also learn that Harker’s colleague, Renfield (Tom Waits) was committed after he had previously met with Dracula.

Harker meets Dracula, with Oldman now wearing old man makeup and a bizarre gray wig reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. Before long, Dracula sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (also played by Ryder) and believes that she’s the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta. Dracula remains outwardly calm about this revelation, but his apparently autonomous shadow lacks a similar amount of self-control. The Count then leaves Harker at the mercy of his three vampire brides while he sails off to England. Bogus, dude!

As Dracula arrives in England, Renfield goes ranting at the asylum, which is near Dracula’s new property at Carfax Abbey. His ravings attract the attention of the asylum’s Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant).

Meanwhile, the Count transforms himself into a young man again, and tracks down Mina, and soon courts both her and her friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). One stormy night, the two ladies seductively dance with each other before Dracula transforms into a wolf and bites and rapes Lucy.

Her later, bizarre behavior leads Seward, Lucy’s former beau, to send for his mentor Professor Van Helsing (also played by Hopkins). The professor deduces that Lucy has been attacked by a vampire. At the same time, Mina receives word that Jonathan has escaped the castle and is at a convent. She goes to Romania where she marries him, while Dracula wallows in self-pity.

Shortly after Lucy dies, Van Helsing, Seward, her other former flame Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell), and her fiancée Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) head to her grave. Naturally, they find her glass coffin empty, and Lucy has now become one of the undead. All but Van Helsing are startled by her vampiric ways, but the quartet manages to drive a stake through her heart, and also decapitate her.

Mina and Jonathan return and are brought up to speed by Van Helsing. As the men hunt the Count, Dracula enters Seward’s asylum and kills Renfield. Not that it matters much, since we hardly knew this movie’s version of the guy.

Dracula next pops in on Mina and they annoyingly make goo-goo eyes at each other. She then pathetically goes apeshit on him for killing Lucy, before turning on a dime and telling him she loves him. Geez, if I wanted stupid romantic turnarounds, I’d watch Friends, thank you very much.

This scene leads to the movie’s lowest point, where Mina lovingly implores Dracula to turn her into a vampire. As anyone who’s read the book can tell you, Mina becomes a vampire against her will. However, the filmmakers seem to think that having this be a consensual act in their movie is faithful to the book. Mina’s line “Take me away from all this death” is as painful as Anakin Skywalker saying that Padme is not rough like sand in Attack of the Clones.

Happily, this awful attempt at a moving love scene is interrupted by Van Helsing and his cavalry. In the movie’s only genuinely scary moment, Dracula startles both them and the audience by popping out in his giant bat form. Van Helsing shoves a cross in his face, but Dracula is able to somehow set it on fire. I guess we shouldn’t wonder how, since the movie doesn’t. He then says Mina is now his bride before bolting.

Mina begins her transformation into a vampire, and this prompts Van Helsing to hypnotize her to find out where Dracula is going. His fellow hunters head for the Bulgarian province of Varna, although the Count manages to outwit them thanks to his connection with Mina.

As Van Helsing and Mina continue to the Borgo Pass, the Count’s brides (remember them? Didn’t think so) arrive. Their influence overwhelms Mina to such an extent that she attempts to seduce and convert Van Helsing, but he manages to outsmart them by forming a ring of fire around the two of them, which keeps the brides at bay. The next morning, they arrive at the castle, where Van Helsing decapitates all three of the brides.

Dracula, with the other vampire hunters in hot pursuit, arrives at the castle as the sun begins to set. After a brief fight with the gypsies who were transporting the Count, Morris heroically sacrifices himself by getting stabbed in the back before he thrusts his bowie knife into Dracula’s heart.

This is how the Count meets his demise in the book, and after he turns to dust, Mina, Jonathan, Van Helsing, Seward, and Holmwood spend the last couple of pages mourning Morris. Mina even notes that she and Jonathan named their son after him.

However, this is further proof that screenwriter Hart read a different book than the rest of us, because this movie completely forgets about Morris after he heroically dies. Why? Because the pathetic Dracula/Mina love story is what the book is really about, at least, according to the filmmakers.

The final scenes of this film have the dying Count crawling in the chapel where he somehow became a vampire at the beginning of the movie. Mina follows him inside and tearfully grieves, calling him “My love.” They kiss before she puts Dracula, the tragic romantic hero, out of our misery by shoving that knife through his heart and into the floor. Mina then yanks the sucker out and decapitates the count.

The final shot of the film is Mina staring up at the ceiling at a painting of Vlad and Elisabeta, symbolizing that they’re now together. Personally, I’m wondering how she and Jonathan will be able to enjoy any future wedding anniversaries after all this.

Many say that Keanu Reeves’s attempts to sound English were the worst part of the film, but, trust me, he’s the least of this movie’s problems.

Someone once called The Godfather Part III Coppola’s Phantom Menace, meaning that both films were highly anticipated but rightfully ended up being disdained. With that comparison in mind, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Coppola’s Attack of the Clones. Both films have a horribly acted love story, and even more damningly, basically say that everything we were told about their primary characters over the decades is now suddenly wrong.

Prior to Clones, we were led to believe that Anakin Skywalker was once a noble figure who tragically became the frightening Darth Vader. However, Clones makes Anakin an annoying prick and nothing more, which is why his transformation into Vader in Revenge of the Sith isn’t tragic at all. Likewise, Stoker’s book paints its title character as a monster that must be stopped. Both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee made their careers by playing the Count in this manner. But Hart and Coppola claim that Dracula is simply a misunderstood hero who’s the victim of a tragic love story and is simply seeking love and redemption (by the way, in real life, Vlad’s wife didn’t kill herself out of anguish, but because she didn’t want to be taken prisoner by Vlad’s enemies, who were closing in on them). Hell, the tagline of this movie was “Love Never Dies”, which doesn’t exactly make me expect a horror movie.

Defenders of this movie claim that humanizing Dracula in this manner makes the film unique. I might go along with that, were it not for the fact that Coppola and Hart stated numerous times prior to the movie’s release that this would be the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s book ever, which creates certain expectations that we assume will be met.

In fairness, this film makes more use of Morris than any of the previous movies (I don’t even recall seeing Morris in any previous Dracula film, myself). Other pluses include Hopkins’s Van Helsing, which is every bit as terrific as Peter Cushing’s (although, was the priest at the beginning of the film supposed to be Van Helsing’s ancestor?). The movie also won Oscars for makeup, costume design, and sound effects editing, and they were all well-deserved.

But these pluses are ultimately overshadowed by the movie’s own hypocrisy. Having a different take on the Count is one thing, but explicitly stating that this Dracula will be the most faithful to its source and then having the finished product showcase something else makes a critical analysis imperative.

If you want a movie that does justice to Stoker’s book, watch the classic movie versions Nosferatu, the 1931 Dracula, or Horror of Dracula. They may take liberties with the book, but they’re all nicely atmospheric, and like the book, they don’t portray the Count as the precursor to Edward in Twilight.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Victim (2011)

"I saw a film once where this guy says, 'I don't deserve to die.' And this other dude looks at him and says, 'Deserving's got nothing to do with it.' Then he blows his head off. That's what I believe. Deserving's got nothing to do with it."
-Kyle Limato.

While making Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez suggested to one of his stars, Michael Biehn, that he make his own grindhouse movie.
Biehn would oblige by writing and making his directorial debut with this movie. He also stars as loner and ex-con Kyle Limato, who simply wants to live a secluded lifestyle (so it may be a bit ironic that his first scene in the film is of him paying for a meal he just enjoyed at a restaurant).
Alas, this solitary life ends one afternoon when a woman named Annie (Jennifer Blanc, Biehn's real-life spouse) frantically knocks on his cabin door begging to be let in. Although skeptical, Kyle obliges and manages to get Annie to tell him that she's on the run from policemen James Harrison (Ryan Honey) and Jonathan Cooger (Denny Kirkwood) who have just murdered her best friend Mary (Danielle Harris).
Much of what follows are flashbacks, which show Annie and Mary taking a break from their jobs as strippers by having a romantic time in the woods with the two cops. As Cooger and Annie get cozy, Mary and Harrison are in another area having sex until Harrison gets a little too rough and snaps her neck. He desperately tells Cooger and they agree to bury the body, along with Annie. But Annie overhears them and bolts.
As it turns out, both killers arrive at Kyle's door shortly afterward. Kyle manages to convince them that Annie is not at his place, but he wants to know what's going on as the cops revealed that she has an arrest record. She insists, though, that she can't go to the police because of the cachet Harrison carries with them.
Annie agrees to take Kyle to where Mary was murdered. As they drive, she flashbacks to hanging out with Mary before their tragic date. As they catch up on news reports of missing girls, Annie asks if Mary wants to double date with her with Cooger and Harrison.
But, upon arriving at the crime scene, Kyle and Annie don't find Mary's body, as the killers buried it.
Eventually, the killers catch up with them and briefly beat up Kyle before he and Annie manage to kill them.
As they still haven't found Mary's body, Kyle decides to bury the bodies before slightly going off on a rant about serial killers and even tossing a quote from Unforgiven (1992) as you'll note in the above quote.
This film is certainly reminiscent of films such as The Last House on the Left(1972) and, indeed, Annie uses a method seen in that film to distract Cooger before killing him in the climax. There's even an obligatory love scene between Annie and Kyle.
Happily, this film, with its lively cast and kinetic violence (and even sexy scenes between Blanc and Harris) is entertaining, even more so than Grindhouse basically because its tongue isn't too much in its cheek like that film's was.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Agony Booth review: Hollow Man (2000)

My latest Agony Booth work looks at a film that's at the bottom of the list you'll find The Invisible Man (1933) at the top of.

I previously expressed my disappointment with Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. But I also noted how it’s understandable why that movie has the following that it does. The same cannot be said for Verhoeven’s follow-up to Starship Troopers, Hollow Man.

Its plot, concerning a scientist taking a serum he’s invented that renders him invisible and eventually goes crazy because of it, made comparisons to H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man inevitable. That book was made into an equally classic film in 1933 starring Claude Rains, and the movie was an intense thriller, with Rains proving a scary yet somewhat pitiable presence throughout using mostly his voice. Add to that some subtle humor, and it doesn’t take long to see why that movie, along with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, remains one of director James Whale’s masterpieces.

Now, remove all traces of thoughtfulness from the story and add a heavy layer of Verhoeven-esque sleaze, and you come up with Hollow Man.

Our film begins with a mouse being dropped into a maze. The creature runs around a bit before being picked up by an invisible hand. We then see the mouse being ripped to shreds as the bloody outline of teeth is seen.

Next, we see Dr. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) at home on his computer, attempting to work on computations for what we’ll soon see is a serum to reverse the effects of another serum he’s already invented, which has been able to cause invisibility in animals. He’s both frustrated at how his work isn’t progressing and how his attractive neighbor (Rhona Mitra) closes her curtains shortly after arriving home (and shortly before undressing).

But that frustration is short-lived when Sebastian goes back to his computer and manages to make whatever he’s working on come up right. He calls himself a genius before phoning his colleague and former flame Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue). After taking note via their webcam conversation that she’s now sleeping with someone else, Sebastian informs her of his progress, and asks her to alert their colleague Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin) to meet them at their lab. As it turns out, it doesn’t take long for Linda to fill Matt in, since he’s the guy she’s now sleeping with.

In the lab, we see many animals in cages, some of which are invisible. Matt tries to calm an invisible gorilla into going with him to the lab, but gets bitten on the hand for his trouble. Meanwhile, Sebastian gets chewed out by the vet assigned to their project, Sarah Kennedy (Kim Dickens). Their fellow doctor Frank Chase (Joey Slotnick) jokingly announces on the intercom that he’s God, and they’ll all be punished for “disturbing the natural order of things” like this. Sebastian shows how egotistical he is when he tells Frank, “You’re not God. I am!”

With their other colleagues Carter Abbey (Greg Grunberg) and Janice Walton (Mary Randle), they put the gorilla under and inject the new serum into her. After some moments requiring the use of a defibrillator, the gorilla becomes visible again, starting with the internal organs, then the skeleton, and slowly moving out layer by layer until the entire gorilla becomes visible.

The group then goes out to dinner to celebrate their achievement, although Sebastian is somewhat down, since this means their work is officially at an end now. And his failed attempt to get things going again with Linda is not helping him much.

The next day, we see Sebastian at the Pentagon explaining to his boss Dr. Howard Kramer (William Devane) and various generals how he and the others have been working on making someone invisible and then visible again for four years now. The hard part, he says, has been to bring the subjects back to being visible again. When Kramer asks if the team has achieved the next step, Sebastian, to Linda and Matt’s dismay, says they haven’t, but they’re close to doing so.

After Dr. Kramer threatens to replace Sebastian if he doesn’t deliver results soon, Linda and Matt confront Sebastian about hiding the truth. Sebastian counters that the Pentagon is going to take away the project once they get knowledge of what they’ve accomplished. To that end, he proposes that they go to the next step themselves, which is to make a human invisible.

Back at the lab, Sebastian lies to his remaining colleagues that the Pentagon approved this next phase, and that they allowed him to be the first test subject. Linda and Matt know the truth, but they keep it to themselves. Though, they do voice their concerns later that night, while making out with each other.

The next morning, Sebastian prepares for the procedure, and attempts to lighten the unease by telling a dirty joke involving Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Invisible Man that we all heard in junior high.

Sebastian strips down, and personally injects the serum into himself. Cool special effects take center stage as Sebastian slowly dissolves layer by layer and slips into unconsciousness. Sebastian awakens later, completely invisible.

Over the next couple of days, he amuses and even startles his colleagues. At one point, he peeps on Janice while she’s using the bathroom, and later gropes Sarah when she dozes off.

After three days, the team attempts to bring Sebastian back with their restoring serum. However, it fails, and he’s stuck being invisible. Linda and Matt try to find ways to bring him back. In the meantime, a latex mask is created for Sebastian, giving him the “Hollow Man” look of the title.

Soon, Sebastian has been invisible for 10 days and is becoming more and more agitated. He angrily tells Carter that he’s going crazy and has to get out of the lab and leaves, despite Carter’s protests.

As Carter informs Linda and Matt of this, Sebastian drives home and chills out in his apartment for a while. And that’s when he sees his hot neighbor return again. He briefly, as in for a second, puts away any thoughts of spying on her, before finally deciding to strip down and pay her a visit. But then it seems he’s not content with just looking, and decides to brutally rape her.

Linda arrives at Sebastian’s place, but only sees his mask. She meets up with the others at the lab to try to track him down, although Carter briefly protests. But their plans stop there as Sebastian appears, saying he just needed time away from the lab. Linda then threatens him, saying if he does this again, she’s going to reveal what he’s done to Dr. Kramer, her own career be damned. Sebastian angrily darts off to his room. Sarah figures out that the generals at the Pentagon have no idea what they’re up to, and they’ve been lying to them all along, but Linda begs her to keep her mouth shut.

Even though Sebastian is clearly disturbed and capable of almost anything, no one is doing much to keep track of him or keep him locked down, because he’s able to leave again later by rigging the thermal video camera over his bed to make Frank think he’s still in the lab.

Sebastian goes to Linda’s place, where he gets pissed off at seeing her make out with Matt. This prompts him to smash the window of their bedroom before darting off. Linda calls Frank, but he tells them that Sebastian has been in the lab all night, because he can see him on the video feed.

Sebastian is next seen angrily pacing in the lab, thinking about Linda and Matt. A nearby invisible dog is barking in its cage, which is also pissing him off. This leads to thermal footage of Sebastian picking the poor thing up and smashing it against the cage wall, as if we needed more gratuitous violence to prove that Sebastian is now a bad guy.

I don’t know how much time passes between this and the next scene, because we next see Linda in the lab, where she figures out that Sebastian has rigged the thermal camera, and is apparently gone again. Linda then tells the team that she and Matt are going to alert Dr. Kramer and the other big shots, with, once again, Carter protesting. When Sarah reminds him that Sebastian killed a dog, Carter retorts, “Oh, you were here to see that?” (Well, the only other thing that could have done it is your lousy acting, pal, and since you weren’t around at the time, I’d say that narrows it down.)

Unbeknownst to the group, however, Sebastian is eavesdropping on them, and he follows Linda and Matt to Dr. Kramer’s house. Kramer tells the couple that they’re fired, and that he and the generals will handle Sebastian. After Linda and Matt leave, Kramer attempts to call the Pentagon, but Sebastian cuts all the phone lines before tossing Kramer into his pool, and holding him down and drowning him.

The next day, everyone is at the lab, with Sebastian calmly saying, “It’s going to be a busy day.” Linda and Matt soon learn that Kramer is dead, and then Sebastian cuts the phone lines at the lab, preventing Linda from calling anyone else. They join the other (visible) members of the group in the main lab, where Frank discovers that everyone’s access to the elevator (the only way to leave the lab, of course) has been cut off except Sebastian’s. They go to his room to confront him, but Janice lags behind the rest of the group, and Sebastian springs out and strangles her.

Of course, the others don’t hear her screams as they reach Sebastian’s room and find his discarded mask. Linda then gets on the PA system to tell Sebastian to stop. Sebastian replies, also via the PA, that he now loves the freedom he gets from being invisible, and doesn’t want to let it go, and that he killed Kramer before he could alert anyone.

The gang then realizes that Janice isn’t around and goes back to the lab to look for her, only to find her dead body in a closet. This prompts Sarah to give Linda a hard slap across the chops for allowing things to go on for this long. Once again, Carter (albeit indirectly now) jumps to Sebastian’s defense by saying that laying blame isn’t important, just rectifying the situation.

But Linda announces that they aren’t going to give up without a fight, and soon they bring out the tranquilizer guns, as well as thermal goggles. With Linda tracking him via a motion detection system, Matt and Carter set out to find Sebastian. After a false alarm involving a heating vent, Sebastian is seen on top of a steampipe, where he grabs Carter, throwing him down onto a steel bar, which tears the hell out of his neck. Matt then tries to shoot Sebastian with a tranquilizer, for some reason discarding his goggles in the process, but Sebastian escapes.

Sarah and Frank tend to Carter, who’s rapidly losing blood. Sarah tells Frank to keep pressure on his neck wound while she gets blood (I thought she was a vet?). She goes to a freezer where bags of human blood are conveniently stored, but then sees a door close. This prompts her to tear open most of the bags she’s carrying, throwing blood everywhere, and with tranquilizer gun in hand, she dares Sebastian to take one step. When nothing happens, she hears him comment on the mess she made before he slaps her. Sarah tears another bag, tossing blood on him. A brief struggle breaks out, ending with Sebastian shooting Sarah with the tranquilizer, and then breaking her neck, and then groping her one last time for good measure.

In the meantime, Frank is hovering over Carter, telling him not to die. Of course, it may have helped if Frank was still keeping pressure on Carter’s wound like Sarah told him to do. Linda and Matt arrive and tell Frank that it’s no use, and Carter is dead, and then they go off to find Sarah.

Given the tone the film has taken by this point, I’m sure this was completely unintentional, but I can’t help but note a certain irony that the one person who was willing to give Sebastian the benefit of the doubt the entire time ends up suffering such a gruesome, deliberate death at his hands.

In the lab, they find blood all over the floor and the open freezer door. As Frank keeps a lookout for Sebastian using a fire extinguisher, Linda and Matt find Sarah’s body in the freezer. When Frank turns to look, Sebastian sneaks up behind him and impales him with a crowbar. He then embeds the bar into Matt’s side before locking him and Linda in the freezer.

Sebastian then dresses himself while Linda bandages Matt’s wound with duct tape (sure, that stuff is kept in a freezer, and can be used as a bandage). After wallowing in self-pity for a minute, Linda manages to come up with an escape plan: She uses their defibrillator, which I guess is also kept in the freezer, as a magnet to pull the lock open and get them out of the freezer.

At the same time, Sebastian prepares to destroy the lab with a timer-activated device full of nitroglycerin. Just as he reaches the elevator, however, he’s stopped by Linda, who blasts the hell out of him with a flamethrower she pulled out of her ass.

This burns Sebastian’s clothes off, but doesn’t keep him from darting away. Linda then uses her flamethrower on the sprinklers, but doesn’t see him until he attacks her from behind. Fortunately, Matt shows up just in time to save her by smacking Sebastian with another crowbar. In true slasher film form, Matt tosses his weapon aside, leaving Sebastian to pick it up, but he misses his targets and the bar ends up in a light socket, electrocuting him and causing him to materialize, but only up to the muscle layer.

Assuming Sebastian has been killed, Linda and Matt head to the lab, where they find Sebastian’s bomb about to go off. Matt says they can’t stop the thing (why they can’t, I’m not sure) so they head off for the elevator. They still don’t have access to it, so they get up on the roof of the elevator and climb up the ladder in the elevator shaft.

The bomb then goes off, causing flames to travel through the lab until it reaches the elevator, which causes the elevator to rocket past them. They dodge it, although it tears off a bit of Linda’s arm. The elevator then comes back down, but gets wedged in the wall just before crushing them. Our heroes climb around it, only for the partially visible Sebastian to suddenly reappear and grab Linda’s leg.

He forces one last kiss on her, “for old time’s sake.” She then grabs an elevator cable and tells him to go to hell, sending him and the elevator plunging into the raging inferno below as she hangs on (with her wounded arm, I might add).

The film ends with Linda and Matt, I guess, making it to the top of the elevator shaft, and they’re soon outside as convenient ambulances arrive to help them.

This is basically The Invisible Man redone as a slasher film, containing all the stupidity that this genre (unfairly or not) is associated with. In respect to the acting, Kevin Bacon has always been an underrated actor, and to his credit, he seems like he has fun with this role. What’s disheartening, though, is that we know that he, Shue, and Brolin have all proven elsewhere that they’re capable of better work.

In his review of this film, the late Roger Ebert claimed that the setup of the movie is somewhat reminiscent of The Fly, in that it involves a scientist who becomes trapped by using his invention on himself. But Ebert added that what made Cronenberg’s film special was the curiosity that story generated. Hollow Man has no such curiosity in its narrative, with scientists who could have only have secured jobs in this profession if they had emerged from the womb with diplomas clutched in their tiny hands. Once Sebastian becomes invisible, the movie resorts to pathetic clichés like having the monster get up over and over again like he’s superhuman, and having the people we’re supposed to root for doing stupid things in order to increase the body count.

Amazingly, this film got a direct-to-video sequel in 2006, which starred Christian Slater in the lead role. Not that it mattered much, since Slater’s tired Jack Nicholson-lite shtick and his run-ins with the law had kicked him off Hollywood’s radar by this point, and was a big reason no one gave that film the time of day.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sir Christopher Lee 1922-2015

Yesterday morning, my brother-in-law texted me the sad news that Sir Christopher Lee died. As readers to this site know, I've reviewed a number of films that were graced by his presence. To that end, I wrote an article honoring this man. Farewell, sir! You shall be missed, and please tell Vincent and Peter we say hi!

Legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee passed away Sunday at age 93. News of his passing was announced Thursday by the Guardian.

The actor passed away from heart failure at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, where he was being treated for respiratory problems.
Lee began his career in the late 1940s following service in the British military during World War II. His first notable role was as the Frankenstein Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the first Frankenstein movie made in color. The success of that film led its studio, Hammer, to produce the first color Dracula movie the following year, Horror of Dracula. As the title character in that movie, Lee would find his signature character. He would go on to reprise the role in seven more films.

His success as the Count would lead to other horror movie roles for the actor, including The Mummy (1959) and To the Devil…A Daughter (1976). Many of these films were produced by Hammer and co-starred Peter Cushing, whom Lee would remain life-long friends with until Cushing’s passing in 1994.

However, Lee made it a point throughout his career to show the world that he could do more than monsters. To that end, he was in such diverse films as The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Bloody Judge (1970), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Wicker Man (1973) and the title character in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). Lee, a cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, would even host a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live.

As his career went on, Lee found himself in great demand, working with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Tim Burton, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.

Lee’s acting career would eventually land him in the Guinness World Records as the actor who had taken part in more movie sword fights than any other (17). These include the lightsaber fights Lee took part in as Sith Lord Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).

But it was director Peter Jackson who would ensure that Lee was introduced to a new generation of fans when he cast the actor as the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lee’s talents were not restricted to acting. He would lend his distinctive voice to several albums, such as the 2010 heavy-metal collections Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. In 2013, Lee released the single Jingle Hell, which entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, making Lee the oldest living artist to enter the charts.

Lee was knighted for his illustrious career in 2009.

He is survived by his wife of over 50 years, former Danish model Birgit Kroencke and their daughter Christina.

“He was the last of his kind - a true legend - who I’m fortunate to have called a friend. He will continue to inspire me and I’m sure countless others for generations to come,” praised Burton, who directed Lee in five movies.

Lee’s final film is the soon-to-be-released Angels of Notting Hill, where he will portray an immortal looking over the universe.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Agony Booth review: 5 reasons the TNG movies weren't that good

I've stated more than once that the four movies Star Trek: The Next Generation spawned were disappointing. My latest article for the Agony Booth goes into more detail as to why that is.
I think it’s safe to say that Star Trek fandom was at its height in 1994. The original series movies had ended on a great note with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, The Next Generation had ended its seven-year run on a high with its final episode “All Good Things...” (which won Trek the last of its four Hugo Awards), Deep Space Nine concluded its successful second season, and the first TNG movie was in the wings.

That movie, Star Trek: Generations, also had the added bonus of teaming Captains Kirk and Picard together on the big screen in the first of what everyone thought would be a successful run of films for TNG.

After all, with the exception of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, all of the movies featuring the original series cast were first-rate (I admit, I found The Motion Picture enjoyable, if slow). So everyone was counting on TNG to reproduce that same kind of magic on the big screen.

There were a total of four Trek movies with the TNG gang. Alas, none of them managed to truly capture the spirit or success of TNG the TV series. Here are five reasons as to why these movies just don’t hold up as well as the TOS films.

1. The need to “pass the baton”

Let’s start with the first movie: Generations. This was a gimmick by Paramount to “pass the baton” from TOS to TNG on the big screen. As far as fans were concerned, the baton was already passed with the lovely final shot of the Enterprise-A sailing off into the stars at the end of Undiscovered Country. Still, the chance to see Kirk and Picard share the screen could have been something special.

Alas, the final product proved anything but. There was some good stuff in Generations, such as Picard’s torment over the deaths of his family members, the Duras sisters returning, and Data getting used to his new emotions; And while everyone knew Kirk was going to die even before the film was released, the destruction of the beloved Enterprise-D was quite shocking, even if it lacked the drama of the destruction of the original ship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

But the movie’s main selling point, Picard teaming up with Kirk, is handled in such a sloppy way that it basically started the whole TNG movie franchise off on a sour note. In the end, it would seem Kirk’s death ended up hurting TNG more than it did the character of Kirk himself.

2. No character development

One of my colleagues on this site wrote an article which noted that TNG made an effort to give the spotlight to all its regular characters, not simply Picard and Data. At the time of the release of Generations, there was a monthly magazine called Star Trek Communicator, and around that time, I read a letter from a reader in one issue that sadly turned out to be prophetic.

The author expressed concern that the TNG movies would basically leave no room for the character moments that were TNG’s hallmark, such as Picard and Crusher having tea together, or Data and LaForge being BFFs. TNG’s final season also gave us the beginnings of a Picard/Crusher romance, as well as a Worf/Troi/Riker triangle (I know some people disliked the latter, but it’s no worse than the Worf/Dax romance on DS9). However, Generations, like the following three TNG movies, is mainly focused on Picard and Data, pushing the other characters aside. This brings me to my next point.

3. The reinvention of Jean-Luc Picard

One of the biggest reasons that the TNG films don’t live up to the series is that they’re more interested in being action flicks, TNG’s legacy (and in some cases, common sense) be damned. In all four of these movies, there seems to be a tendency to recreate Picard as a swashbuckling hero, engaging in fisticuffs with each of the movies’ villains.

I can accept this in the second TNG film, Star Trek: First Contact, given the character’s history with the Borg, but having him do so in the other three movies in such a contrived manner had me questioning more than once if this was the same man we enjoyed watching on TV for seven seasons.

At the same time, there was an attempt to make Picard more of a romantic figure by giving him pseudo-love interests in both First Contact and the third film, Insurrection. The former involves the character of Lily (Alfre Woodard), Zefram Cochrane’s assistant who’s brought aboard the Enterprise and fights the Borg alongside our heroes. This character is unnecessary, because she does what Crusher had often done on the show: talk sense into Picard.

In Insurrection, we see Picard and his crew inexplicably side with a race of people who, when you really look at the story, are just a bunch of selfish jerks. One of these people, Anij, played by Donna Murphy, proves to be another replacement for Beverly, in that she gets bonding scenes with Jean-Luc. Patrick Stewart got an associate producer credit for Insurrection, so many blame him for trying to make Picard into an action/romance star in this movie, but if the previous two films are any indication, Paramount would have encouraged this direction anyway.

The reason Picard’s heroics worked in episodes like “Starship Mine” and “Gambit” is that, unlike the films, those circumstances didn’t compromise what we knew and loved about the character.

4. All self-contained stories

Although most dislike the slow pace of the movie, The Motion Picture nonetheless did its job of introducing Kirk and his crew on the big screen in a grandiose way. However, it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that ensured their big screen exploits would be as beloved as their small screen ones. A major reason for this was producer Harve Bennett taking a good look at the series before production began, and making two key decisions: he wanted to recapture the character moments between the crew, and bring back a strong antagonist for them.

This decision basically led to how Star Treks III, IV, and VI would play out (it’s an interesting coincidence that the much-hated Final Frontier is the only film of the bunch to not follow upon Wrath of Khan’s storyline). As a result, the way the movies tied in together is part of why they nicely complemented the show itself. In contrast, all four TNG films were simply self-contained adventures with little ongoing significance, much like Voyager and Enterprise would later turn out to be.

Even First Contact suffered from this, from the beginning of the movie when it was revealed that a single Borg ship was launching an attack on the Federation, which was a rehash of the same battle in TNG’s classic “The Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. You’d think that suspense would have increased tenfold if the Borg had sent more than just one vessel this time around. I know some will argue that the attack in the movie was just a ruse to get the Borg’s time travel scheme underway, but then, why didn’t the Borg just use their time travel further away from Earth, so no Federation ships could follow them?

Granted, we saw the Borg in the series, but as DS9 was on the air at the time the first three TNG movies were in theaters, I think the Borg should have been tied in with the Dominion, much the same way that the TOS movies eventually tied in Khan’s storyline with the Klingons.

5. Constantly trying to compete with Khan

Another thing all four TNG movies have in common is their attempt to have the crew battle a specific, evil villain. This was understandable in First Contact, but even that ended up hurting the movie in the end. As unnecessary as Lily is, even more so is the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), a character who appears to be strong proof that First Contact is as much a movie by committee as the other TNG films. What made the Borg unique is that they were all one hive mind, and hence, not like other villains. Giving them a single leader made them simply just another generic foe.

Insurrection didn’t fare any better in this department, as the person we were supposed to hate (played by F. Murray Abraham) turned out to be hammier than a can of Spam (watch how he screams the patented Star Wars “NOOOOOOO!” and you’ll see what I mean).

Rolling Stone had an article discussing the fourth TNG movie Nemesis several months before it premiered. In that article, they mentioned that Nemesis would have a villain to rival Khan. Right at that moment, my mind was screaming for this not to be. Putting aside the fact that TNG already had, for all intents and purposes, its counterpart of Khan with the Borg, this article was basically saying that the film wanted to go the action route again, just like its three predecessors.

That villain turned out be the Reman leader Shinzon (played by Tom Hardy), who via plot contrivance had been surgically altered to resemble a younger Picard. Other nonsense this film gives us is yet another android who resembles Data, which is as bad an idea as giving Spock a brother in Star Trek V. There’s even a big climatic battle in the finale of the movie meant to generate the same emotion as the one in Star Trek VI. Sadly, this film reinforced the fact that “All Good Things...” would have been a better sendoff for the TNG gang.

To summarize, the four TNG movies had some good ideas, but those were sadly overshadowed by the studio’s desire to turn TNG into something it wasn’t, hence invalidating the series the same way Alien 3 invalidated its predecessors. Or to look at it another way, if TNG ended with “All Good Things...”, those stupid “Troi can’t drive” jokes wouldn’t exist.